DEATH LINE (1972)
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Norman Rossington, David Ladd
Writer: Ceri Jones
Director: Gary Sherman
When a government official goes missing after last being seen in Russell Square tube station, Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) of Scotland Yard sets about solving the case, aware of several other disappearances which have previously occurred in the same area. Calhoun hopes that a young couple (played by Sharon Gurney and David Ladd) who saw the man alive just before he vanished will provide the answers he needs but, as we get to know before he does, something far more tragic and gruesome is going on…
Having not seen this for several years but having remembered how much I enjoyed it back then, I’m delighted to confirm Death Line is a bonafide classic, not just because of its plentiful humour and well-placed gore but because of its assured film-making by Gary Sherman and a brilliant, biting script from Ceri Jones (from Sherman’s original story).
Astonishingly, given the craft on display and the general confidence of the piece, this was Sherman’s debut feature and he was only in his twenties at the time. There’s a care evident in every frame of this, not least a stunning tracking shot of over seven minutes in length which gives us a leisurely, not to mention queasy, tour of a nightmarish setting for human slaughter. The crisp cinematography is courtesy of Alex Thomson who was a camera operator for Nicolas Roeg before he became a fully-fledged DoP. He also lensed such films as Dr. Phibes Rises Again and deep-sea monster flick Leviathan.
Also, watch the scene in which Calhoun encounters his MI5 nemesis Stratton-Villiers, played by Christopher Lee (whose appearance apparently took up around half of the budget – money well spent, in my opinion). For one, it’s a joy to watch Pleasance and Lee play off each other but pay attention to how each character is shot as the dynamic shifts in their conversation.
Death Line was ahead of its time in terms of startlingly gory moments – it still packs a grisly punch now – and provides a stark contrast to the rather more chaste approach of, say, the Hammer output of the era. This was progressive horror in all senses of the word, taking its cues from the political landscape, class warfare and social injustices both modern and historic.
It’s arguable that the most sympathetic person in the entire movie is the killer himself. He cares more for those around him than anyone else in the story and he’s driven to kill by circumstance and a need to survive outside the norms of society. In Gurney’s Patricia, The Man – as he’s referred to in the credits – desperately tries to make himself understood but it’s the lack of understanding between both parties that ends in a terrifying act of violence, the one moment in the proceedings where empathy for this poor creature is substantially diminished.
As The Man, Hugh Armstrong is exceptional, somehow coming across as warm-hearted even though he’s been dining on commuters for who knows how long. Communicating through howls, grunts, whimpers and the one phrase of English he’s picked up (“Mind the doors!”) he’s still more principled and unselfish that those above ground and his innocence gives context to the dreadful things he’s forced to do. He’s also more loving than Patricia and Alex (Ladd), who live together but don’t seem to have much affection for each other at all.
Donald Pleasance and Norman Rossington (as Calhoun’s sidekick, Detective Sergeant Rogers) are brilliantly entertaining as Scotland Yard’s finest, Rossington playing the knowing straight man to Pleasance’s wisecracking Inspector. Calhoun’s dialogue is frequently hilarious, often revolving around where his next cup of tea is coming from, and it does seem that Pleasance is having an absolute ball here, There’s also a lovely gag involving a dartboard in Calhoun’s office that’s dealt with in such a wonderfully throwaway manner that you know the people behind this are not wanting to hammer home every little detail to their audience.
Death Line is a superb, offbeat horror/thriller made with heart and guts (literally, in a few scenes), refusing to resort to ticking off the usual shocker checklist and delivering a truly outstanding piece of work in which even the standard triumphal ending is replaced by something more sobering and thoughtful. As Calhoun says: “What a way to live”. And what a film this is. If you haven’t seen it, please seek it out. Seventies fashions aside, this is as fresh and vital as the day it was first released.